By Lyubov Tsarevskaya
Part and parcel of this great city are its long-established trading and catering businesses.
A turn-of-the-century newspaper reporter Vladimir Gilyarovski remembered a day in 1901 when the city's main thoroughfare, Tverskaya Street, saw the opening of a huge foodstore with special emphasis on quality wine. Onlookers blocked traffic, to admire the pompous architecture and avidly eye the glass showcases displaying picturesque pyramids of unheard of foods.
There were coconuts stacked like cannon-balls, each the size of a toddler's head; there were bananas hanging down in heavy garlands; there were unfamiliar seafoods, variously shaped and mysteriously colored; and there were, of course, bottles of wine ranked in countless batteries reflecting the bright light of high-power electric bulbs. The townsfolk dubbed the store the Moscow Temple of Bacchus. A temple indeed, with cut-glass chandeliers, huge mirrors, gilded relieves, Grigory Yeliseevcarved stalls and marble-topped counters creating a shopping space unparalleled anywhere in Europe and rather reminiscent of an opulently decorated place of worship.
The Company's founding father in the early 19th century was a frugal peasant farmer named Pyotr Yeliseyev. Having bought freedom from his landlord, he traveled on foot to St.Petersburg to start a small food shop. His sons inherited a much larger store which they incorporated as THE YELISEYEV BROTHERS Limited Company, a trading firm dealing mainly in colonial commodities such as tea, coffee, tobacco, spices, sugar and rum. To tackle the logistics of their growing business, they acquired a fleet of fast seagoing Dutch-built steamboats. Traders who did business with the agents on board spread the word of the firm's meticulous honesty and, most importantly, of its habit of expediently paying for supplies in hot cash. A coat-of-arms bestowed by the Emperor came as a well-deserved cognition of the Company's outstanding services to the Motherland.
The founder's grandson, Grigori, a manager up to the standards of the century that dawned, aggressively expanded into food processing. Factories and shops to produce sweets, chocolate, pastry, sausages, smoked fish and preserved fruit combined with warehouses, cold storage facilities, delivery services and state-of-the-art retail outlets to create a business empire to which only the sky would seem to be the limit.
In its heyday at the century’s turn, the Company launched this nation's first chain of food superstores, one in St.Petersburg, one in Kiev, and one in Moscow.
Profusely stocked with every conceivable type of delicacy, the Moscow store, the biggest of the three, appeared a real-life implementation of a Flemish-painted still-life. Sausage and cheese came in the widest possible choice. Stuffed goose and smoked turkey made a tantalizing contrast with fresh oysters and snow-white sturgeon fillets. A smashing variety of sweets and chocolate items matched an all-year-round assortment of fresh fruit such as strawberries, bananas, oranges, pears and pineapples.
Caviar went without saying, both salmon and sturgeon, in every package and preparation, ready for delivery on demand almost anywhere.
The wines, of every kind, grade and price, came from vast cellars where the Company aged precursory products imported from vineyards in France. For this job well done, the French national panel of wine tasters awarded the Company a gold medal. Grigori Yeliseyev himself received membership of the Legion of Honor for a collection of quality wines brought for appraisal to Paris. To secure a cheaper and more reliable supply of the basic raw material, he gave over to growing grapes on vast tracts of land on the southern seaboard of the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea.
An unrivalled business tycoon and freshly-knighted nobleman, Grigori Yeliseyev contemplated a bold expansion into North America appointing his eldest son to establish a bridgehead.
But at this point the story goes sour.
The surprise discovery of a young mistress led Grigori's wife to commit suicide, and his sons, to formally renounce the inheritance rights. Caught up in a mounting public scandal, he wound up his business, married his sweetheart and took her to Paris where they spent the rest of their irretrievably shattered lives.
The Bolsheviks, when they took over, nationalized the YELISEYEV store. But the architectural opulence of the place lasted out the bleak decades. And so did the firm's big name, which these days again attracts gourmets to where they can procure Moscow's very best.
Several shops away from the YELISEYEV food store there is another well-established food business, a bakery once run by the famous FILIPPOV entrepreneurial clan. And once again, reading the memoirs by Vladimir Gilyarovski is the surest way to get an idea of what the business was like in pre-Bolshevik days.
The shop, he remembers, was always doing a roaring trade. High school and university students, retired clerks, officers, military cadets, fashionable ladies and shabbily dressed working women all crowded around hot pans containing famous FILIPPOV pies stuffed with minced meat, eggs, rice, mushrooms, curd, raisins or jam. Cooked in good oil and leaving no nostril unstirred, five-copeck meat pies were big enough for just two to make a fairly heavy lunch.
They were the invention of Ivan Filippov, the founder, who initially won a reputation selling rolls and excellent brown bread. Asked whence the unparalleled flavor, he would cite diligence, care, hard work but first and foremost, the watchful eye of his employees charged with securing appropriate quality of the flour supply. As simple as that, would be his by-word.
The tasty produce found its way to the number one household in St. Petersburg. The poor chemistry of the northern capital's water precluded top-quality baking near the Emperor's palace and necessitated daily rail deliveries from Filippov's bakeries in Moscow. To places like Sibaria where the rail track had not yet reached out Filippov sent bread in the dead of winter by horse-drawn sleigh. Consignees unraveled the garlands of stone-frozen bag-shaped rolls, and buyers thawed the rolls on their tables. No loss of original flavor was ever recorded. As simple as that, to put it in Ivan Filippov's words.
Another invention, the roll with raisins, came into being after a happening in which Ivan Filippov displayed the qualities of a seasoned courtier.
One morning the then Governor of Moscow General Zakrewski, a tyrant no one dared to cross, discovered a dead cockroach comfortably baked inside a Filippov-supplied tea roll. Frogmarched to the Governor's office, just across the street from the bakery, and threateningly confronted with the disgusting find, Ivan Filippov promptly swallowed the ill-fated roll announcing that what his Excellency had mistaken for a dead cockroach was in fact a raisin.
To allay the General's doubts as to the existence of rolls with raisins, he rushed to the bakery and added a basketful of raisins to ripening dough. An hour later, rolls with raisins landed on the Governor's table, and twenty four hours later, in shopping bags of the public at large.
That brilliant exercise in face-saving by no means implied dishonesty. In doing his business, Ivan Filippov was a devout Orthodox Christian.
Prayers sent up by a sufferer, Orthodox tradition has it, are certain to reach the Almighty. In line with this belief, Russian business tycoons often marked Christian feasts by ordering extra supplies of bread to the population of jails. Unlike less scrupulous bakers who seized on the opportunity to sell off heaps of stale bread, Ivan Filippov saw to it that what his bakeries sent was fresh from the oven. Moreover, he channeled the proceeds to improve food rations in prison hospitals. His prime motivation was to do what is morally good, not to make money or gain distinction. As simple as that, to put it in his own words.
Sources:The Voice of Russia,www.dedushkin1.livejournal.com,www.old.moskva.com,www.ogoniok.com,www.slovari.yandex.ru